Less than 1 in 4 eligible service members opted in to the new Blended Retirement System, according to preliminary numbers from the Defense Department.

The percentage is higher in the active component — 1 in 3, or 33.1 percent. About 12 percent of reserve component members opted in to the system by the deadline, Dec. 31.

As defense and service officials made a final push to inform service members about their options and the resources available, the number of opt-ins increased by 13 percent in the last two weeks of December, when 45,178 people signed up for the Blended Retirement System.

The preliminary number of troops who opted in is 397,260, or 24.2 percent of the more than 1.6 million troops eligible to opt in to the BRS.

That doesn’t count the 147,911 troops who entered the military in 2018 and were automatically enrolled in BRS.

The Marine Corps' active-duty force had by far the highest percentage of opt-ins — 59 percent. The Corps is the youngest and smallest service.

The Marine Corps also required Marines to register their decision, regardless of whether they chose to opt in to the new BRS or stay with the legacy system. The other services required their members to take action only if they wanted to opt in to BRS. If soldiers, airmen and sailors didn’t, they stayed with the legacy system.

Among the active-duty force, the Army had the lowest percentage of opt-ins, with 25.5 percent, but it also had the highest number of opt-ins, as it is the largest service.

Here are the preliminary numbers.

Number eligible to opt in as of
Dec. 31, 2017
Opted in as of
Dec. 31, 2018
Percent eligible who
opted in 
Army Active351,55089,72925.5
Air Force Active227,99466,30129.1
Navy Active237,16177,35132.6
Marine Corps Active141,93184,32459.4
Total Active 958,636317,70533.1
Army Reserve159,98917,50410.9
Army National Guard298,76227,5959.2
Air Force Reserve56,4456,33511.2
Air National Guard89,56410,13011.3
Navy Reserve41,7694,59611
Marine Corps Reserve33,69613,39539.8
Total Reserve Component680,20579,55511.7
Total1,638,841397,26024.2
Source: Defense Department
(Numbers are preliminary)

About 1.6 million active-duty and reserve troops were eligible to make the choice to opt in to the new retirement system — those with fewer than 12 years of service as of Dec. 31, 2017. Those with more than 12 years stayed with the legacy system. Troops entering the military in 2018 were automatically enrolled in BRS.

Defense officials said they have no target or goal for opt-ins, and no preference for which system individual service members choose. Each decision is an individual one, based on the service member’s circumstances and future plans.

According to DoD, 81 percent of service members in the legacy retirement system don’t stay in the military long enough to qualify for any government retirement benefit.

The law was changed in 2015 to overhaul the military retirement system, with a blended pension and investment system, including a component of contributing to troops’ Thrift Savings Plan, as other federal government agencies and many private companies do.

Under BRS, service members receive a retirement pension after 20 years of service, but it’s 20 percent less than the legacy system. But unlike the legacy system, service members in BRS get an automatic contribution of 1 percent of their basic pay to their Thrift Savings Plan retirement account, and a DoD match of up to 5 percent.

There’s also continuation pay, a one-time bonus payment at 12 years of service, in exchange for a commitment to serve an additional four years. And under BRS, retiring service members have the option of receiving a lump sum of either 25 percent or 50 percent of their future retirement pay.

“The department is immensely proud of the success of BRS implementation,” said DoD spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Col. Carla Gleason.

She cited a comprehensive training program of more than 1.6 million people that began in 2016, a massive communications outreach effort, and “the cooperation, support, and extraordinary efforts of many agencies across the whole of government as well as numerous military and veterans service organizations and community partners."

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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